A Masterful Playwright Reconstructs Shakespeare

Tania Thompson
 | Aug 29, 2016
Aaron Posner

Playwright Aaron Posner.

Posner's Other Hats

Aaron Posner looks for things that challenge him, so in addition to being a sought-after playwright, he also is in demand as a director. In this interview, he talks with Terri Bourus about his directing side. Bourus is the general editor of the New Oxford Dictionary, founder of Hoosier Bard Productions and a professor of English drama at Indiana University. Read their conversation.

A Conversation with Aaron Posner

Playwright and director Aaron Posner has long been drawn in by The Bard—from the time Posner played Falstaff in junior high school to now, as a sought-after director of Shakespeare plays and as a playwright who adapts the Bard for modern audiences. In creating District Merchants—his new play, inspired by The Merchant of Venice—he says he wanted to use it as a platform to explore his own thoughts on many of the ideas, issues and complex people it presents. Before looking at District Merchants through Posner’s eyes, let’s go back to where The Bard grabbed him.

Who introduced you to Shakespeare?
My first Shakespeare teacher was the marvelous Ray Scofield at Roosevelt Junior High in Eugene, Ore. He understood the plays and, more importantly, he loved the plays. And he made sure we understood and loved them, too. He taught Shakespeare and directed full productions with seventh, eighth and ninth graders doing their level best. I played Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor in eighth grade. Not a definitive performance, perhaps, but what a joy! He opened the door for me and I am eternally grateful to him. But I also lived only three hours from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Ashland, Ore.) and my folks started taking us there when we were very young, so I also got to see amazing versions of the plays, which blew my mind wide open. So I am grateful to my folks and to the amazing artists of OSF, who did for me what they have done for generations of people on the west coast.

What’s the attraction for you to adapt a work like The Merchant of Venice?
What drew me to adapt it were the exact same things that pushed me away from the original. I think The Merchant of Venice is just a deeply problematic play. I find the themes and issues it raises compelling, but I’ve never known how to direct it in a way that would be interesting or satisfying to me—much less to audiences. If I was going to engage with it in some way, I was not interested in trying to cut it or force it to fit my worldview. I decided I was much more interested in using it as a platform or jumping off place for me to explore my own ideas on the important issues and human complexities it grapples with.

How did you start the conversation with yourself to adapt it?
The American setting actually started from one mention of slaves by Shylock during the trial scene. And that got me thinking about the larger issues of discrimination​—of people’s inability to see and understand others; of their unwillingness to accept difference; and of people’s challenges to engage positively with people from outside their comfort zone. Once I had those ideas in mind, I began the process of researching the world I was interested in setting it in. And I started working with my excellent dramaturges at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C.—Michele Osherow and Ayanna Thompson—both Shakespeare scholars and very smart people of the theatre.

Someone described your process by saying that you take classic works, shake them apart and then reassemble them to form new stories.
I don’t think I shake them apart—though I kind of like the image! It makes me sound a lot cooler and more badass than I think I really am. But what I do is just really listen to the classics in my own idiosyncratic way. I think about how I can engage with that story—where it goes deep for me, where it takes me, what it makes me wonder about, what about it bothers me or upsets me, and where do I find the love and hope in it. Then I write about that stuff.

You described District Merchants as an unwinding of ‘what ifs’—such as, if this took place in D.C., that could be a great setting for a complex and difficult piece about race, religion, power and money.
Yes, I wanted to engage with the story in a way that could talk about core American issues and things that I am thinking about right now. And there was something compelling and engaging about anti-Semitism living side-by-side with slavery. I originally thought I would set it further back, in the late 18th- or early 19th-century. But, then I got very engaged with Reconstruction Era and what a fraught and fascinating time it was. It was a brief window full of such possibility that, sadly, like other opportunities before and since, we blew as a nation.

Did the setting come first for you, before the adaptation?
I live in D.C. The Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library is in D.C. and they commissioned the piece. In 1870, D.C. had significant African-American and Jewish populations, so it seemed like a very logical and helpful place.

The characters seem to be flawed and difficult people; it’s not easy to like them. Why is humor such an important element?
Yeah, the people are flawed and difficult. But I don’t find it hard to like them—though maybe I am in the minority. I don’t know about your friends and loved one, but mine are all flawed. And none more flawed than me. I’m rarely interested in heroes or villains. I am most interested in flawed people trying to do their best and screwing it up constantly in a variety of ways. I am interested in how our flaws connect us… and also push us away from each other. Yes, most of the folks in District Merchants are flawed (though not all of them...!), but that is how I experience the world. And that was always my favorite part of The Merchant of Venice. Hopefully it asks us to ask questions about our own lives and beliefs and the way we engage with others.

In terms of the humor… well, the harder things are in our lives, the more we need to laugh, to find perspective and to find some way to go forward without jumping off a bridge. Humor is important to the people in the play because their lives are hard and they have real and painful obstacles between them and what they want. Humor is important to me because I want people to engage with my play and engage with the characters and being funny and/or charming can really help with that. If Shakespeare is my greatest guide, Shaw is my number two. Shaw knew that if you want people to listen to your ideas, then you better entertain them along the way. I want people to want to see the plays I write. So I try to make the journey of the play enjoyable to watch.

If you had coffee with Shakespeare, what would the conversation entail?
I have no idea. I suspect he would wonder how we have muddled through another 400 years and not gotten very far in loving ​and seeing each other better​, understanding each other better​, or loving each other better. I hope he’d enjoy the play. Even more, I hope he’d respect that fact that I am to do to him exactly what he did to other playwrights and historians of his day. He has one or two original plots among all his 30-something plays. But he took those stories and histories and plays, re-imagined them and made them his own. He used them as playgrounds to write about his own visions and concerns. I am following his lead, not only with this play, but also with my Chekhov adaptations, with a new play I am writing about John Quincy Adams, with all of my writing actually. I hope he’d respect and enjoy that he is still the model for imagination and re-imagination on stage.

Are you a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty person when it comes to hope for the future?
I am essentially an optimistic person. I have hope. I see wonderful people doing wonderful things all around me, all the time. But, sadly, I also see the opposite. I think we live in scary and complicated times and, unfortunately, when it comes to the core issues of this play, ALL times have been pretty much as scary and complicated. Difference is challenging. Fear is real. Hatred and mistrust run deep and always have. As much as there is that binds us and connects us, there are powerful forces within and without that pull us apart to create difficulty and dissention. That is why I wrote the play. I think these things need to be talked about and explored and engaged with in the most complex ways possible. And I think the theatre is still a place where this can happen in rich surprising, and worthwhile ways. I take hope from the fact that people can change. I take hope from the fact that while there is still so far to go, there has been real progress. For all the forces of hatred and mistrust that abound these days, there are also powerful forces of love, understanding, acceptance and kindness. That is very hopeful to me. I hope it will be to others as well.

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