Lantern Theater Company, critically acclaimed in Philadelphia for their annual Shakespearean offering, presents William Shakespeare's THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR as the highlight of their 20th season. Directed by the Lantern’s Artistic Director Charles McMahon and starring Tony Award-nominated actor Forrest McClendon in the title role, the Lantern’s production is inspired by the warrior ethos of feudal Japan, calling into question the rights of the ruler against the rights of his people.
I was lucky enough to interview both Charles and Forrest about the Lantern’s production of CAESAR and their experience about theatre in Philadelphia.
Samantha: What were your earliest artistic influences and how did you eventually come to Philadelphia?
Forrest: I grew up in Roodner Court, the largest public housing project in Norwalk, Connecticut. My earliest influence was probably my Sunday school teacher Cutie Mae Jordan who lived right above us and played the piano like a percussionist. When I started at UConn I was an Engineering major (which probably wasn't a good idea since I'm bad at algorithmic math). I started taking voice lessons as a non-music major, which came in handy when the School of Engineering was about to give me the boot for failing Engineering Physics…again. I transferred to the School of Fine Arts as a Voice major, but found the transition difficult.
I came to Philadelphia because I answered an ad in BackStage for a voice teacher at [The University of the Arts]. Charlie Gilbert hired me and has been one of my greatest champions locally. When I moved here in the mid-90s, a lot of the (now) mid-size companies like the Lantern were being born.
Charles: I grew up mostly here in Philadelphia. I guess my earliest artistic influence must have been the Beatles, although by the time I was in high school my interests were evenly divided between rock music, classical music and Shakespeare. I played in bands in high school but I was also listening to a lot of classical music, later I thought I would be a classical flute player, but everyone I knew told me that that was absurd and that I was clearly going to go into theater.
By the time I got out of school I knew that I wanted to start a company, but I didn’t know where. It seemed that New York would not be a good climate for the work I wanted to do. Everyone I knew there was either deeply enmeshed in avant garde work, or they were just using their New York address to audition for regional theater. I was doing one of those out-door Shakespeare productions in Philadelphia in 1990, and decided that this would be a good place for the kind of work I was hoping to do although we didn’t start the Lantern until 1994.
Samantha: How has Philadelphia changed or influenced your art? How directly/indirectly does it affect you?
Charles: It’s really the community of artists that have made Philadelphia their home over the past twenty plus years that have influenced me. There is a kind of directness and realism among local theater artists. People don’t put up with a lot of BS hear the way they can in New York, there’s not a lot of posing here because people are too busy working. There’s a lot of great stuff going on up there but there’s also a lot of very expensive trash. In Philadelphia we all see each other’s work and I think most people are honest and constructive in their conversations about it, so in a way we all push each other to improve.
Forrest: There are many things about Philly that are ideal for me as an artist. For example, I love to do plays AND musicals and Philly is about great storytelling through both forms. The greatest gift that Philadelphia has given me is the gift of the living writer. It has a direct impact on my career because many […] writers have invited me to other theaters outside of Philadelphia. (Forrest has worked with writers such as Suzan-Lori Parks, JT Rogers, Russell Davis, etc.)
Samantha: Charles, Why did you choose CAESAR for your 2013 - 2014 season?
Charles: First, it’s a great play. Also, we had never done it before and it felt like a change of pace from the work we’d done recently. Then as we began to talk about it, it felt so resonant with our own time. There are these currents of political discontent that keep rising up in different eras of American history. There was a great deal of talk a few years ago about how the US was now an empire and we should all just get used to the idea. This struck me as an idiotic thought, but it had a lot of currency among people who now claim that the president is acting like a king, even though he seems to be bending over backwards to cooperate with the legislative branch. I think people are very confused at the moment about what tyranny really is, at the same time they are easily swayed by emotionally charged ideas and arguments that lead them away from reason and responsible government.
Samantha: Why did you choose to set it in feudal Japan?
Charles: Sometimes to get people to look at something in a different way you need to show it to them in a different way. I knew we didn’t want to dress people in togas or business suits, and as we thought about the challenges of staging this sort of epic play in our tiny building, we started to think about what we could do with shoji screens. Soon after, we started thinking about using taiko drum music, and at that point we we’re hooked on the idea. As we started to see our Rome in the light of Japan we noticed a lot of similarity between the Zen Buddhism of the Japanese warrior class and the stoic principles to which many of the major characters in Julius Caesar were adherents.
Samantha: Forrest, tell me a little about playing Julius Caesar. How did you build YOUR Caesar? Did you draw inspiration from any other depictions?
Forrest: I usually begin with something that I call Basic Choice Work from A to Z, that is, for each letter of the alphabet there is a specific question that I ask about the character. Age. Birthday. Class … Zodiac Sign. In the case of Caesar, I was looking for a deep personal connection so I started to look at the 1960s as the 'assassination decade' in American history (MLK, RFK, JFK) and was inspired by Colman Domingo to look at Malcolm X, specifically. Lots of films, essays and reviews. I have to say: as an artist I have an aversion to reviews while as a scholar I have an addiction to them.
Samantha: Why do you feel this particular story is relevant now?
Forrest: In exploring the 1960s, I observed that assassinations take place at moments of great hope and fear. And I think Obama, like Caesar, represents both of those things; that America, like Rome, is the great imperial power of the 21st century. We are telling a story of our time, albeit with a nod towards a distant culture, something Shakespeare sought to do for his audiences.
Samantha: How do you feel that this production has stayed true to Shakespeare’s original text? How do you feel it has changed/stretched it?
Charles: There’s always a little bit of cutting in Shakespeare. We’ve changed the genders of some of the characters, like the Soothsayer and some of the slaves, but things are by and large how Shakespeare wrote them.
Forrest: The text is sacred. Period.
Samantha: How was it working with Charles McMahon as your director? How has his expertise helped your creative process?
Forrest: My favorite thing about working with Charles is his penchant for the 'odd' moment. He relishes the language, but understands the magic of the pauses.
Samantha: Charles, how was working with Tony-nominated actor, Forrest McClendon?
Charles: Forrest is a terrific actor and a very positive force whenever he’s in the room. It’s a big challenge to play Caesar because he’s got more said about him in the play than he actually says himself, so one has to make a very strong impression in a relatively short time. Caesar must be an extraordinary man in general, but he must also embody a whole series of specific contradictions. I think the end result is mesmerizing.
Samantha: What is your favorite thing/place/stereotype about Philadelphia? What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
Forrest: Reading Terminal: I have two hot spots. Keven Parker's Soul Food for fried chicken and mac and cheese. And the Dutch Eating Place for either open-faced turkey and mashed potatoes or a sloppy joe with fresh cut fries. Yummy yummy.
Charles: The Wissahickon woods, the Academy of Music, and the Rodin Museum. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage because I don’t feel any guilt about things that bring me pleasure. A friend of mine who’s a nun tells me this could be a big problem for me, and she might be right. Can I just pretend to feel guilty about beer?
Samantha: And finally – what’s next for you?
Forrest: Gil in WILD WITH HAPPY by Colman Domingo at Baltimore Center Stage.
Charles: TAMING OF THE SHREW… and beer.
Shakespeare's THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR runs until March 16, 2014. Tickets are $20 – $38 and are available online at lanterntheater.org or by calling the Lantern Box Office at (215) 829-0395. $10 student rush tickets are available 10 minutes before curtain with valid ID; cash only. Additional discounts are available for seniors, groups of 10 or more and U.S. military personnel. Lantern Theater Company is located at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th & Ludlow Streets in Center City Philadelphia.