Interview: Alec Wild, Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company Academy for Classical Acting at the George Washington University

Soft, behold! This summer DC offers first-rate Shakespeare everyone can enjoy.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting (ACA) at the George Washington University, starting in July, is presenting three Shakespeare productions in rotating repertory, all by noted directors. As You Like It, directed by Aaron Posner, opens Tuesday, July 9. Measure for Measure, directed by Timothy Douglas, opens Thursday, July 11. Macbeth, directed by Craig Baldwin, who is also director of this year’s Free for All Hamlet starring Michael Urie at the Shakespeare Theatre, opens Saturday, July 13.

John Zoitos and Tro Shaw in combat class at the Shakespeare Theatre Company Academy for Classical Acting at the George Washington University. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.
John Zoitos and Tro Shaw in combat class at the Shakespeare Theatre Company Academy for Classical Acting at the George Washington University. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

The ACA program consists of one year of immersive scene, vocal, text, and movement work. There are courses in rhetoric, mask, the Alexander Technique, stage combat, dramatic literature, and theatre history. All offerings are in conjunction with the George Washington University, and students receive an M.F.A. Created by Michael Kahn in 1999, the ACA is now in its twentieth year. Many of the faculty are award-winning STC Affiliated Artists, such as Edward Gero and Floyd King. Some of the visiting artists have included Laura Linney, Maria Aitkin, and Franchelle Stewart Dorn.

Some of the actors who have attended the ACA are actors, directors, and innovators who work in the DC theatre scene, while others work on Broadway, film, and television: Marcus Kyd (Artistic Director of Taffety Punk); Kimberly Gilbert (The Arsonists at Woolly Mammoth); Dawn Ursula (Queens Girl in the World at Theater J); Thomas Keegan (Junk at Arena Stage); Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Keegan Theatre); Elan Zafir (Junk at Arena Stage); Lisa Brescia (Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway); Gene Gillette (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Broadway); and Tymberlee Hill (Marry Me, Drunk History series).

This is a marvelous opportunity to see ACA’s graduating students, fresh from intensive training, working with some of our most talented directors on Shakespearean classics.

I spoke with ACA Director Alec Wild about these new productions and about the ACA in general.

ALEC: Posner’s As You Like It features the entire class. And they’ve all had training in comedy, and rhetoric, and wit. The Macbeth is played by six people. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and the three witches play all the other characters. The three witches are woven into the entire fabric of the story. It’s a startling, often scary, beautiful production.

Alec Wild, director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company Academy for Classical Acting at the George Washington University. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Alec Wild, director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company Academy for Classical Acting at the George Washington University. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

SOPHIA: Well, Macbeth should be scary!

ALEC: The third play is Measure for Measure, directed by Timothy Douglas, who recently did Spunk at Signature Theatre.

SOPHIA: I saw that. I really enjoyed it.

ALEC: Every spring we do a devised movement piece, with a little bit of text but mostly movement. This year we told the entire story of Henry VI in an hour.

SOPHIA: I am shocked. That’s three plays! How did the program begin? What was the rationale?

ALEC: Michael Kahn started this program because he saw all the American actors going to London to study Shakespeare. They were doing six-month or one-year programs over there, and he thought, Why can’t we do it, so they can stay in America? He built that program. I don’t think there was any person better than that to do it. His knowledge of the text is unbelievable. That’s one thing that he and I share…we both insist that the actor know why he or she says this or that word at this or that moment, and what the thought is. I think with these productions you’ll see some of the finest Shakespearean acting you’ve seen, because they’re really putting their training to use.

SOPHIA: How did you get interested in theatre?

ALEC: I guess just like everyone else did. I fell in love with it when I was in junior high school. I didn’t know that I wanted to direct until later. There was a drama teacher in high school, and he was great, he taught me a lot. But there was a rehearsal he couldn’t come to, for whatever reason. It was Guys and Dolls, and we were doing the “Luck, Be a Lady” scene. I was playing Nathan Detroit, and I stepped out of it, and I said, “OK, let’s do it,” and I started directing it. I started telling people what to do, and where to go, and we ran it at the end, and I looked at it, and I thought, “That is really good! I love this!” Before that, I thought I wanted to act, but then I thought “No, directing is for me.” I went to the Goodman School of Drama, which is now DePaul Theatre School, and I remember my acting teacher said, “So why are you here?” And I said, “Because I want to be a director.”

SOPHIA: What was your first Shakespeare production?

ALEC: Romeo and Juliet was my first real Shakespeare. It was in a storefront theater in Chicago. 47 seats. My own theatre, that I started. It was our first production. The Chicago Reader (a weekly newspaper) did a review of it and called us “resourceful.” I was very proud. I love Romeo and Juliet. I feel like it’s a comedy and a tragedy. The first half is a comedy. I love the big turn in the center of it.

SOPHIA: What else can you tell me about the program?

ALEC: Students, who are often already working actors, work least five and sometimes six days a week. We do nothing but classical acting. Most of the time is spent doing scene work, vocal work, text work, movement work.

SOPHIA: Voice is so important.

ALEC: Any famous actor, even any famous movie actor, must have an expressive voice. One of the things, when I took over three years ago, was I put in more vocal work, because I think it’s so important. I think you’ll see it on stage.

Charlotte Vaughn Raines and Melissa Macleod in 'Henry VI' by the Shakespeare Theatre Company Academy for Classical Acting at the George Washington University. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Charlotte Vaughn Raines and Melissa Macleod in ‘Henry VI’ by the Shakespeare Theatre Company Academy for Classical Acting at the George Washington University. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Michael believes, if you can play the classics you can play anything. Because the depth of thought that you need to navigate in the classics is so complex. If you can get your head, and your mouth, and your body on fire with those things, you can really play anything. We are also asking people to reach into the deepest parts of their emotional lives too. We’re talking about jealousy, and murder, and hatred, and passionate love, betrayal…

SOPHIA: Big emotions, like opera. These people fear for their lives, and you need to get to that. I loved Michael Urie’s Hamlet, for example. Because it was so full of ideas. He had an idea every five seconds.

ALEC: He was a student of Michael Kahn’s. The reason he is so good as Hamlet is that he really takes you through his thought process. As you watch, he takes you right along with him. That kind of work is hard to do. Hamlet is usually behind a wall. You know how he feels, and you know what’s going on with him, but you don’t listen to every turn of his thoughts. I knew exactly what he was thinking and feeling all the time.

SOPHIA: He took you right along with him…He is performing Hamlet again in the STC Free for All (running July 10-21 at Sidney Harman Hall).

ALEC: One of the troubling things about theatre today is…well, for example, we discuss productions all the time. And sometimes students will say, well, I liked it, or I didn’t like it, or I hated it. And I usually say, let’s go back from that. Liking it is not really the point.

What do you think the director is really trying to do? Did it work? Did it compel? If it didn’t, let’s talk about why it didn’t, but let’s not talk about “like.” We don’t expect to love every painting we see when we go to a museum. And we shouldn’t expect to love every play.

SOPHIA: It’s not a consumer activity.

ALEC: It’s an engagement activity. That’s what we talk about a lot at the ACA…not just showing the audience the story but inviting them into the story. That’s what Michael Urie does so well.

SOPHIA: You took over three years ago?

ALEC: Yes, and since then we have tripled the number of auditions. We’ve increased the number of shows too. We used to only do two shows a year, but now we do two one-hour Shakespeares in the fall, a devised movement project in the spring, and three productions in rotating rep at the end of the year. I like to think big.

Allison Husko, Samuel Adams, Katie McDonald, Tro Shaw, Jeff Raab, Melissa Macleod, and Natalie Cutcher in 'Henry VI' by the Shakespeare Theatre Company Academy for Classical Acting at the George Washington University. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Allison Husko, Samuel Adams, Katie McDonald, Tro Shaw, Jeff Raab, Melissa Macleod, and Natalie Cutcher in ‘Henry VI’ by the Shakespeare Theatre Company Academy for Classical Acting at the George Washington University. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

SOPHIA: There’s lots of Hollywood Shakespeare. And the U.S. has over 240 Shakespeare theatres and festivals…

ALEC: All the people you love on Game of Thrones are classically trained. Classically trained actors are working everywhere, in television, in movies. Look at Michael Urie. He’s classically trained, and he’s on Ugly Betty. And one of the great things about the school is, we get people from all over, from New York, from the Midwest, from California…and they come here to DC, and they realize it’s a fantastic theater town.

SOPHIA: Yes, it is.

ALEC: And they stay, because there are so many opportunities for actors to work here.

SOPHIA: Yes. There are lots of classic productions too.

ALEC: And Michael Kahn knows how to get the kind of actors who can do this. Like the actress, Kelley Curran, who played Clytemnestra in The Oresteia. Actors who have that extraordinary depth of emotion, to make those emotional turns, and to carry the text.

SOPHIA: She was amazing.

ALEC: Actors like that are hard to come by. That’s the kind of actor we’re trying to make.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting at the George Washington University presents its 2019 Rep Season (with performances of As You Like It, Macbeth, and Measure for Measure) from July 8-26, 2019 at GWU’s Theatre XX, 812 20th St NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.

Previous articleBringing ‘Savage the Musical’ to the Concert Stage of the New York Musical Festival: A Conversation with Creator Nicolette Blount and Director Rachel Klein
Next articleMagic Time!: Why ‘A People’s History’ Is “Painful”: A Q&A With Mike Daisey
Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCMTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She is a playwright and director. An early draft of her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied English at Barnard, and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time Real Estate Editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.