BWW Interview: Aaron Posner of KING JOHN at Folger Theatre

BWW Interview: Aaron Posner of KING JOHN at Folger Theatre

King John is Aaron Posner's twentieth directing project with the Folger Theatre. He is a two-time recipient of the Helen Hayes Award, and is also the director of Ford Theatre's current production, Born Yesterday.

Can you talk a little about your artistic decisions for King John? You've opted for a bare, stripped down setting for this performance. Why is that?

King John is a not very-often produced, and less-respected play, but I think there's a great deal of beauty, richness, and resonance to the play. I think people don't always trust the work if you gussy it up and seem to hide its flaws. I wanted to give it its own platform so people can see it without feeling like we're hiding or smoothing it. I've developed a real love for this play, including its flaws. Folger is an intimate theatre, and the audience is intelligent and sophisticated with a good ear for Shakespeare, so it's a good place to do this with a play they don't know as well.

What's it like putting together a production that has the dichotomy of Shakespeare's popularity while being a relatively unknown show?

I engage with the show like any classic - I develop a relationship with it, ask questions about what I have to say, what it has to say to me and others. This play feels surprisingly relevant and immediate: it talks about things on our minds and in our hearts currently about leadership, the intersection of personal and political, how decisions are made and at what cost. It doesn't feel like a far stretch, but very immediate and present ideas.

Because it's a play even sophisticated audiences don't know, you need to take a little more care and clarity in storytelling. I always try to take care, because if a relatively intelligent 12-year-old is lost, you're not doing it right. Shakespeare is written for broad audiences, and is meant to be accessible. It's important to make sure the story is as clear as it can possibly be, but also still interesting. It's meant to be accessible to everyone, interactive, even, so we can all engage and respond to it in a much more immediate sense.

Did you choose to put on this particular play, or did Folger ask you to direct it?

This is my 20th production directed at Folger, so sometimes I've gone and asked to do something, sometimes they ask me.

This was mutual. There's a Churchill exhibit showing at Folger right now, so they wanted to focus on plays he commented on or was interested in, and this was one on the list they showed me. I hadn't read it until a year ago, when I saw it on the list, but I read it and was immediately struck by it. It's a flawed play, but there are some amazing characters, amazing scenes. The language is really good, with echos of Lear, Caesar, and other famous tragedies.

It's thrilling to do a play people don't know - it gives us a little more elbow room. Less-known means there are less assumptions, so we can do things differently - not better or worse, just a little different. I did make edits for clarity, since the play is not as tightly structured as the great plays. That's where a lot of the criticism comes from, usually. But this story is its own opportunity as well.

I'm really enjoying it, and we have a tremendously good and dynamic group of individuals that bring gifts to the production, so it's taking shape in really interesting ways. The cast brings really rich and surprising characterizations.

What did Churchill think of King John? Was there anything in his notes that struck you?

He wrote about it briefly, but wasn't particularly illuminating. But I was recently watching "The Crown," and it's interesting that the issues of class, responsibility, duty have such resonance.

What are some of your favourite productions you've worked on?

I really enjoyed Twelfth Night (with Kate [Eastwood Norris] and Holly [Twyford]). My first show with Folger's was As You Like It (also with Kate and Holly). I also enjoyed working on District Merchants, which was a reimagining of Merchant of Venice. Holly and Kate are actors I've come back to again; we also worked on a production of Taming of the Shrew. I've also been able to work with our producer, Janet Griffin, on many occasions - she allows me to take risks and explore new ideas.

How does this play compare to your previous productions?

I tend to start from "why not nothing?" point of view. From there, sometimes the play itself wants a lot, and more is more - like the production of Macbeth I did in Chicago, or Henry VIII. Those are shows that thrive on pageantry. But this play is a lot of conversation, with a focus on people trying to figure things out.

Is there anything you think audiences should know - or strip away - before they see the show?

We've added a prologue so they know what they need to know to enjoy it. We also have an excellent ensemble, so it helps me learn about the show as we go. I've never seen it before, and only read it a year ago, so I'm still on learning curve myself. But the actors bring a richness to characters, which allows us to learn about them as we go. I'm grateful to Folger for the opportunity, and to the cast for what I'm learning from them.

King John is playing at Folger Theatre October 23rd through December 2nd. Aaron Posner will be featured in the October 25th Stage Director Talk - information on the event can be found at https://www.folger.edu/events/king-john/special-performances

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