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BWW Interview: 'Great Performances' Executive Producer David Horn Talks ROMEO & JULIET

The filmed play will be available to stream on pbs.org/gperf from April 23 to May 21.

BWW Interview: 'Great Performances' Executive Producer David Horn Talks ROMEO & JULIET

The curtain goes up on a gorgeous new production of "Romeo & Juliet," starring (The Crown, Masterpiece: The Durrells in Corfu) and Jessie Buckley (Fargo, Chernobyl) , on the evening of April 23, when the film makes its US debut on PBS! Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet will also be available for viewers to stream on pbs.org/gperf from April 23 to May 21.

Throughout its more than 40-year history on PBS, Great Performances has provided an unparalleled showcase of the best in all genres of the performing arts, serving as America's most prestigious and enduring broadcaster of cultural programming.

Ahead of the premiere, BroadwayWorld had the chance to speak to Great Performances executive producer David Horn about the production, COVID-era theatre, and making plays accessible.

As the executive producer of Great Performances, David Horn oversees the development, production and programming of WNET's national performing arts presentations on PBS. During his 41-year tenure with the series, Horn has twice received the prestigious Peabody Award and has been nominated for a Primetime Emmy more than 25 times, winning five. In 2015, he was honored with The Drama League's Unique Contribution to the Theater Award for his vital work in bringing New York theater to a larger audience across America.

Read the full interview below!


What was your first exposure to Romeo and Juliet?

The Zeffirelli film. The best part of that story is that I had two brothers and a sister - I was the youngest - and I remember we were sitting in the theatre and we kept telling my sister not to cry. If she cried when everybody else cried, it would have been fine, but she just couldn't hang onto it, so she started to cry at the end of the credits and we had to sit there for five minutes while she cried, on and on. That was my first exposure; it was that film. I grew up in Florida in the Space Coast area and we didn't have that much live theatre.

I can definitely see how that experience would have pushed you toward a line of work where you'd get to expose other people to theatre.

Absolutely. I actually started out as a musician. I've been doing Great Performances for over forty years, but I started by doing more music-based shows, and then getting musicals, expanding that, and then, when I became executive producer, trying to continue our tradition of doing Shakespeare which we had when I first started in the late 70s. We ran all the BBC Shakespeare plays that they had remade at that particular time. I don't know if you recall those.

How many times have you produced a Romeo and Juliet [adaptation]?

I have not produced a Romeo and Juliet. I direct a lot of live captures and the last one I did was Much Ado in Central Park, and when Covid came along, we were doing shows differently and we weren't able to do those types of shows. But, in the process, we were trying to develop a more extensive relationship with The National Theatre. We wondered if, perhaps, we could be involved in co-productions: shows that we would do here, in the US, and then vice versa, over there. So this particular one [Romeo and Juliet], which you probably know, had been planned to be staged last summer. Because they are a theatre with stages and spaces and stuff like that, it was they who had the idea that they could help, based on the rules and regulations established in England during the pandemic - that they could create a bit of a bubble, and make a different film. An unsung hero in this is Emily Burns who did the very creative adaptation to use all the different spaces in the theatre, and have the production so totally billed, I thought that was a very clever idea.

My experience with Shakespeare, when we've done films like the Patrick Stewart Macbeth, is you can get so many more pages of script, as opposed to a traditional drama, done in a day because the actors are so rehearsed and know these parts so well, and the nature of the way the dialogue works. So, you can do a film in 18 days as opposed to a couple of months.

Can you tell me what about this production makes you most excited for audiences?

I think for me, to step off onto a tangent, one of the reasons I'm committed to Shakespeare is to be able to have educational outreach and to make it available in schools. The three plays that are most often done in schools are Macbeth, which we have a good film of, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet. I like the fact that [Romeo and Juliet] is a bit shorter, with kids these days (laughing). I like that the cast is really young and energetic. I like that the cast is very diverse. So, hopefully, it will be one that teachers will use in this country for the next several years.

What does your educational outreach program look like?

Basically, we have an educational department, we have PBS Learning[Media] that these things go out on. In the past, the National Youth Theatre and RFC, who create these things all the time, they put together short pieces that they use - obviously, you'll have the whole film of it, but they use short scenes that go into a lesson plan, give the lesson plan to the teachers, to have them describe what's going on in the scene, to give them any questions to ask their students. You only have forty-five minutes to an hour in a classroom; you have to break it up into chunks. I don't do it myself because I'm not an educator.

Do you have any great stories that have come from students seeing your work?

There have been a lot of anecdotal instances where people have written in or they have become a star, and they've said it led them places, like: 'seeing Oklahoma on Great Performances was my first exposure to theatre, dance, music, and it inspired me to go onto a career.' It's nice and encouraging and heartwarming things that you can hear.

That must be so rewarding.

Absolutely is. We're not doing public television to get rich (laughing) so you have to get something else out of it. It's why you'll find a lot of people like me that spent pretty much their entire career in public television. And there are opportunities to go other places, make more money, [but] you get to work on things here that you could never work on anywhere else. It's certainly rewarding.

Did you learn anything about yourself creatively or personally working on this production of Romeo and Juliet?

That's a tough question. We have a standard way of presenting things; we don't do that many feature films. We were involved in The Hollow Crown production, which people then came to that, it had Jeremy Irons in it - they were feature films. Macbeth was a stage production but taken on location and done as a film to make it more accessible. In this case, it was emotional for me because of the lack of theatre and drama for almost a year. I started seeing the dailies that they'd send me from London so I could see what was going on and it really had an emotional impact. A story like this is so emotional, and seeing such tremendous young actors, the response that we've gotten, not only that they got in England, but over here, too, is how great that Josh [O'Connor] and Jessie [Buckley] are. What a tremendous chemistry. And I think we'll get a bigger audience for Shakespeare because they're so popular right now. Who's hotter than both of those actors? That wasn't the intention; the timing was just perfect. Like English actors do, they had committed a period of time where they were in the midst of a television and film career to do Shakespeare.

How hands-on were you able to be? Is this the first time you've had to be remote in your career?

There's different ways we do shows. Sometimes, there are shows that somebody else produces and makes that we just acquire. There's the more classic co-producer, or, as in this case, an executive producer role, where we are consulted on all the creative aspects, and we make an investment. And then there are shows that we raise all the money for, and we actually produce ourselves, like Much Ado.

It's hard to sit back and watch somebody else do things that you would normally do yourself. What was incredible was Simon Godwin: this was his first time doing a film, and he had to rely on a lot of other people, like the director of photography, to help him out. But I've discovered, over the years, is when you evolve creatively - what I do as a television director is more of a craft than creative - but, when you evolve the really creative people and show them how it's done, they have really tremendous ideas. It's hard to watch from a distance because normally, I would have been there for the shoot, and maybe had a little more input. But, as you could see by the finished film, they didn't need me. I think the finished product is tremendous.

How has COVID impacted the way you collaborate?

Quite extensively. I'll give you an example: an annual show I do is with the Grammys, the Lifetime Achievement Award winners, which is a good show. It's diverse, it shows these great artists' histories via clips, and we have other people come on and do tribute performances. We used to do it at the Dolby Theatre where they do the Oscars. We scheduled to do it out in LA last April, but it got cancelled. Rather than just not do the show at all, we said, well, we can probably do just a clip show, where we would do archival pieces on each of the artists and maybe do a shorter show. But, we ended up creating it as we went along. There weren't as many guidelines last summer when we shot the show over a couple of months. We were sort of making it up as we go along, and it depended on the comfort level of the artist. Some were older, and we put them inside recording booths and shoot them through the glass. In some cases, we had to do testing, and the testing was so unreliable in the early days, but we managed to get a series of performances that we shot in recording studios, which made sense for the Grammys.

I just did an award show for AARP, it was Movies for Grownups, and it was the same sort of thing. You couldn't expect - giving an acceptance speech, or talking about their role - that these artists were going to go with protocols, so most things were done via Zoom, unfortunately. We had all the production value in the clips, and I think a lot of us are getting fatigued from that type of show. I'm tired of directing the shows from my bedroom (laughing). We are so desperate for the theatres to reopen, for all the different arts organizations, the dance companies, opera. For our Great Performances at the Met series, Peter Gelb was very creative and did recitals isolated in beautiful locations around the globe rather than productions, captures, and fully produced operas from their stage. So, people found different ways to do it, but there are some things that make these shows a little more expensive. For shows like Romeo and Juliet, and other things, Covid costs are really expensive and particularly for us, add a cost.

As you said, there's been a line everyone's had to toe in the past year with keeping theatre alive and keeping theatre more accessible, and also doing it all from your bedroom. You've been in the business of making theatre more accessible for a large part of your career, so what do you wish other producers knew about preserving theatre on film?

The calling card we've used since I've been here is that it's very important to have a record of a show. There was one really limited production, and it had a pretty big star in it, and the manager said, well, we want this production to be remembered like an urban legend, just for the eight hundred people that were there every night. I even had this argument with Patrick Stewart when I wanted him to do the Macbeth. When I first met him backstage, he said, I know why you're here, goddamnit, I don't want to do this, I'm only interested in it for the audience. It took months to convince him that this performance was so great, and this particular production was so great, and it'll be just a memory for some people - it's really good to have a record of the show for as many people as possible. After he did it, he admitted he was wrong.

I had no involvement in it, but in the early days of Great Performances, many of the Balanchine ballets and dances were done in a studio in Nashville, supervised by mister Balanchine himself. We blocked a little bit for camera, and those are very important digital records that people need. And there are so many places where it's so expensive to see a performance, pre-pandemic, and even if you can afford it, there are a lot of places around the country that you can't access it, so I want that message to get out more and more. We made some inroads - we had a partnership with BroadwayHD where we were able to make a lot of musicals, and I directed a lot of musicals for them. But a lot of people think that they're going to get Netflix to come in and spend millions to make a feature film version, and that's just not always going to happen. There's a difference between the live performance and the filmed performance of the same [show] and a lot of times one can live alongside the other.

They can absolutely stand next to each other.

In fact, one of my favorite shows... people always say, what's your favorite show? And I tell them it's the Gospel at Colonus. It started out at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Annenberg theatre in Philadelphia. It starts as Sophocles, but it was done as if it were a gospel sermon - Morgan Freeman was a preacher. When you saw it in the theatre, it was like a gospel music experience. When we did it for television, the drama came out more. We did that two years before it ended up on Broadway; it was a very specialized piece, but it didn't keep it from going to Broadway. It's hard to convince people that have a lot of money invested in these shows. And a lot of times, when they're on television, it validates it to people across the country and when they come to New York, they want to see the show in person.

Is there anything else you wanted to share about Romeo and Juliet, or anything else you want to plug?

Uncle Vanya is coming. They were fortunate, as well; last year, there was a brief period where they were trying to reopen in London. They were able to run only for a short period of time and closed, but it was really well received, and Sonia Freedman had the correct point of view of 'I have to make a record of this performance.' No one gets rich from these things, the captures - you have to be thankful you're pursuing your passion - but, fortunately, they were able to shoot it in that brief period of time when the restrictions weren't as complicated then as they are now.


Watch the trailer for "Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet" here:

Photo Credit: PBS


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