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By Brian Robin

Bringing Shakespeare and the Disciples to Life

Davis McCallum brought his love of Shakespeare to Oxford, a love born in his Atlanta hometown, nurtured at Princeton and artistically reared in England during the year he spent as a Rhodes Scholar.

Studying Shakespeare at Oxford is kind of like saying you flew with the Red Baron or ran with the Rat Pack. It’s immediate street cred. But McCallum is the first one to tell you he did more than study the Bard that year. 

“I did a lot of traveling. I fell in love, saw a ton of plays, performed and directed several plays and found time amidst all that to do a little studying,” he said. “I think about that time fondly. It was about that time that I realized I’m interested in these broader questions of production, rather than thinking about one character. How does this play feel? What are the rhythms? What kind of style was it written in? How much space does it need? More or less directorial questions. And I got more and more interested in those questions. Acting in a play was less satisfying than directing.”

He brings that passion to SCR as the director of Galilee, 34 by Eleanor Burgess. The world premiere runs April 21-May 12 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.

As the artistic director of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival for the last decade, McCallum built an enviable career directing the Bard. But alongside that came a talent directing new plays. McCallum directed The Whale by Samuel Hunter at Playwrights Horizons, which earned a Lortel Award for Best Play. He helmed Water by the Spoonful at Second Stage, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

In both Shakespeare and new works such as Galilee, 34, he loves the challenge of finding the story and unleashing a company’s ability to bring it to vibrant and engaging life.

Burgess’ work explores what happened to the disciples after the Crucifixion. The healer from Nazareth is dead—and his followers are determined to keep sharing his message. The problem is the Roman Empire wants them out of the picture. And they don’t have a leader. And they can’t quite agree on exactly what that message is.

“I loved this play when I first read it,” McCallum said. “I understood it to be not a history play, but a family play and the truth is, it’s both things. It’s also a play of ideals, but I think our production is relating to these people and the relationships they have with each other. This is the story of a group of people who love each other like a band, a theatre company or a sports team. They’re involved in a project where they’re ready to die, they care about it so much. And yet, they get pulled in two different directions.

“That’s the basic story of the play. It’s incredibly funny, but even though it’s about these iconic figures from religious history, the language of the play is surprisingly contemporary and relatable.”

The moment he read Burgess’ line that opens the second scene, “No, none of this happened, but I swear to you all of it is true,” McCallum instinctively knew where he wanted to go. It took him back to his high-school basketball days, before the 6-foot-3 McCallum traded the court for the theatre. 

“The materials of the set and the clothes and the sound design taken together, those things say to the audience, ‘Look, let go of any preconceptions you might have of what a story from the time of the New Testament might look, sound or feel like,’” he said. “Any really great play has its setting, but it also has location along with a setting. The location is Galilee in 34 from a political and social context. But the setting of the play is right here at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California in 2024. …

“Our work as a creative team and company is to not get entangled in the question of what ‘actually’ happened. That’s something that nobody knows for sure.”

So where did McCallum’s love of Shakespeare come from? In high school, McCallum found himself cast as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. Not only couldn’t he understand how a 6-3, 94-pound beanpole was cast in a role often played by more rotund actors, but McCallum couldn’t understand the Bard’s language.

He went to his school’s Audio/Visual room and checked out a record album of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, featuring Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft.

“I remembered this being the weirdest thing,” he said. “I was transported, almost hypnotized. There were sound effects. You would hear clumping as they left the room and it would get fainter and fainter as they walked away.

“The following year, my senior year, we did Hamlet and I got cast as Hamlet. That sealed the deal. Having all that language rattling around your head when you’re 17-years-old and discovering who you are and all those existential questions and angst, and humor and range was something I could connect to.”

Not surprising, McCallum paraphrased Hamlet when describing his feelings directing Galilee, 34 at SCR. It’s the perfect meeting of his two directorial passions.

“So many brilliant plays had their start in this building,” he said. “I’ve had the privilege of working on productions with a number of SCR playwrights.

“It’s a consummation devoted to be wished to be directing this play in particular here at SCR.”

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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