Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 151
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to theater in the United States. Broadway and regional theaters are dark, and Shakespeare festivals across the country have cancelled their seasons. So it wasn’t a surprise when The Public Theater decided, for the first time in 66 years, that they couldn’t offer free Shakespeare in Central Park.
But what they did instead made one of their scheduled productions—Richard II, directed by Saheem Ali—more accessible to more people than ever before. The Public joined forces with New York’s public radio station, WNYC. Together, they created something that hasn’t been done before: a four-night serialized program that combined a presentation of Richard II with expert analysis and stories from cast members to contextualize the play in these unusual times. Director Ali worked hand-in-hand with WNYC producers Emily Botein, Matt Collette, and Isaac Jones to overcome massive challenges, like having twenty-six actors appear from twenty-six different locations and getting it all done in a compressed, 12-week period.
We talk to Ali and Botein about just how they addressed those hurdles to create their radio production of Richard III—which you can listen to now as a podcast. Ali and Botein are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Listen to The Public’s Richard II at wnyc.org/shakespeare or wherever you get your podcasts.
Saheem Ali is the director of The Public and WNYC’s radio production of Richard II. Ali has directed nearly 25 plays, mostly in New York, over the past 10 years. He has his fingers crossed for two productions—in New York and in Berkeley—in 2021. Emily Botein is Vice President for On-Demand Content at WNYC public radio in New York, where she oversees national programs including “Death, Sex & Money.”
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published September 15, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Weeping Made You Break the Story Off” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
The Folger Shakespeare: Richard II
Read, download, or search Richard II with the online Folger Shakespeare.
Joe Papp and Shakespeare in the Park
Listen to our Shakespeare Unlimited interview with writer Kenneth Turan about Joe Papp and the founding of The Public.
MICHAEL WITMORE: This year—what with COVID—people in New York couldn’t go to Shakespeare in the Park. So instead, they turned on the radio.
WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to theater in the United States. Broadway and regional theaters are dark. Shakespeare festivals across the country are cancelled. So it wasn’t a surprise when The Public Theater decided—for the first time in 66 years—that they just couldn’t offer free Shakespeare in Central Park. What was a surprise though, is what they decided to do instead.
The Public joined forces with New York’s public radio station, WNYC. Together, they created something that hasn’t been done before; a four-night, serialized program that combined a presentation of this year’s Shakespeare in the Park offering, Richard II, with expert analysis and stories from cast members to contextualize the play and its production in these most unusual times. The play’s director, Saheem Ali, worked hand-in-hand with -NYC producers Emily Botein, Matt Collette, and Isaac Jones to overcome massive challenges like twenty-six actors appearing from twenty-six different locations and getting it all done in a compressed, 12-week period.
This production, Free Shakespeare on the Radio, is now also a podcast that you can listen to. Emily Botein and Saheem Ali joined us recently to talk about how they did it. Saheem spoke to us from northern Manitoba in Canada while Emily was at a beach house off Rhode Island. If their audio quality is not what you normally expect from us, we hope you’ll understand because we have challenges too.
We call this podcast “Weeping Made You Break the Story Off.” Saheem and Emily are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Saheem, let’s start with you. How deep were you into your planning for this, as a Shakespeare in the Park Production, before it started to dawn on everyone that there just wasn’t going to be a Shakespeare in the Park this summer?
SAHEEM ALI: When things shut down in March, we had cast about half of the actors. We had a set design. We had costumes. Yeah, so I would say we were about halfway in our process when, all of a sudden, we realized that we weren’t going to do it anymore. And then it took another month or so before the whole notion of the radio play came about.
BOGAEV: Yeah. And, Emily, who got the idea to repurpose this as a radio program?
EMILY BOTEIN: My colleague, Elliot Forrest, had been in conversation with people at The Public, just about theater in general—about radio and theater, and what might happen. I was brought into the conversation, sort of, early on into the pandemic. And when I heard we were talking to The Public, I said, “Well, what’s happening to Shakespeare in the Park?” But I had no idea… I was just like, “That’s a New York icon. What’s happening there?”
BOGAEV: Oh, that’s great. You went right there first, as a New Yorker. Because I’ve lived in New York too, and that’s something you just cherish in the summer. That kind of is summer in New York.
BOTEIN: It’s something we cherish. I think also in particular for me, especially early on in the pandemic, Central Park felt so emotional. It’s such a… and the idea that we weren’t going to be able to gather felt really poignant to me. Like, there was a hospital in Central Park. There was just all these other uses of Central Park, and the use that we were used to for the summer, the idea that that wasn’t going to happen felt, sort of, very emotional to me. To me, it was like, “Oh, if we could give that back, that was important.”
BOGAEV: So what was your reaction when you heard that The Public wanted to do this play in particular, Richard II?
BOTEIN: I thought, “Oh [expletive]. I haven’t read it.” I was like, “Uh…” I definitely knew I was out of my league. But I just remember—and Saheem, I think it was in the middle of May. I think it was May 12 that we first met. One of the things I just remember was Saheem saying from the first time we met was, “Accessibility. Accessibility. Accessibility is really important to me.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. I don’t know this play. I don’t know the story of it, but it’s interesting that he keeps saying that.”
BOGAEV: Okay, Saheem, jump in here. What were you thinking when you kept on harping right from the start on accessibility? What did accessibility mean to you?
ALI: Well, this play is notorious for being one of the least produced, least known of the plays in the canon. I think it had been something like 25 years since it was in the Delacorte. It’s because a lot of Shakespeare’s other plays do a really great job of giving you context; what world you’re about to enter. Richard II, you just jump into the deep end.
[CLIP from The Public and WNYC’s collaboration, Richard II. André Holland is King Richard and Dakin Matthews is Gaunt.]
Old John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster,
Hast though, according to thy oath and band,
Brought hither Henry Bolingbroke, thy son,
Here to make good the boist’rous accusation
Which then our leisure would not les us hear,
Against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray?
I have, my liege.
ALI: Something has happened that is influencing this dispute at the top of the play, but no one’s really talking about it. And so even for the Delacorte, I had been thinking about ways in which to help an audience understand some of the stakes.
Ourselves will hear
The accuser and the accused freely speak.
High stomached are they both and full or ire.
ALI: So for example, in the first scene where Richard is arbitrating this dispute between Bolingbrook and Mowbray, I had planned to set that as part of a funeral. So you were going to see a funeral procession. You were going to have a casket on stage, and then you were going to have this dispute break out so you understand, “Okay. Whenever they’re talking about this guy, Gloucester, someone occasionally points at the casket.” And so we understand that someone significant has died—has led to the moment that we’re in—because Shakespeare doesn’t give us that.
So I kept saying “accessibility,” because it was really important for me to be able to help an audience understand what’s important when there are no visual tools at my disposal.
BOGAEV: You were thinking already in the “in real life production” before you conceived it as a radio play, how to make that accessible. Emily, is that the same idea of accessibility that you had?
BOTEIN: No. I mean, not exactly, but I just thought, “Oh, we have the same challenges.” I mean, not exactly, but not so far off. We’re constantly thinking about our audience. The specifics are different, but we have the same long-term goal.
BOGAEV: Well, when you say you’re always thinking about your audience in terms of producing anything in radio, to you, what does that mean? And Saheem, jump in here. How is an audience that comes to the theater ready to see Shakespeare so different from the WNYC public radio, presumably very well-educated audience that comes to the radio?
ALI: Yeah, well, I really wanted to take into account the fact that not everyone coming was not everyone listening to, not only about Richard II in terms of that particular play, but also in terms of Shakespeare. Like, maybe this was going to be the first time someone was experiencing a Shakespeare play at all. So I just really wanted to keep those people in the front of our minds as we were crafting the whole thing.
BOGAEV: And Emily, what were you thinking? Was it along those lines?
BOTEIN: Yeah, I mean, I think in radio, it’s, like, just people show up, and that’s part of what’s so lovely about it, and it’s part of the challenges of it. In podcast, you know, we think it’s people who want to listen to this, but you don’t know who’s just making dinner and turning on the radio, or driving along to drop off their kid, or whatever. It’s even more beyond the people who said, “Okay, I’m going to wait in line at the Delacorte.” We need work on anyone who just popped in a cab, or that whole range of people.
BOGAEV: Right. So what was your concept when you first sat down to talk with The Public people and with Saheem? What did you hear in your head?
BOTEIN: For me, I think what I heard… part of the challenge was I literally didn’t know the story. So what I heard was, in part, what I imagined. One of things I’d really like to start was this idea of a serialized experience people would have over a series of nights during this time when we’re all so isolated. That we would be able to do something together.
So I heard the concept of what I wanted to make. The experience that I wanted people to overall come away with. This idea that it would be some combination of play and contextual information, to give you the handholding to not feel at sea.
[CLIP from The Public and WNYC’s collaboration, Richard II. James Shapiro is the speaker.]
JAMES SHAPIRO: I teach this play in the middle of the semester, every fall. It’s the one play that kids walk in defeated by, because they don’t know what’s going on when they play begins, and they’re constantly playing catch up.
BOTEIN: That’s what, to me, the goal was.
BOGAEV: So what were the elements of doing it for the radio? Because there are different ways to go with this. You can document the making of a play, or you can do a full-blown radio drama.
BOTEIN: Yeah, I mean, one thing to keep remembering is we did it in 12 weeks.
ALI: Oh, yes.
BOTEIN: So you know, I think Saheem and I would probably both do plenty of things differently. And I think that was also part of the pleasure. It was, like, both part of the terror and the pleasure is we were making decisions just because we had to make a decision. It wasn’t like, “Oh, and this is the best way to do this, or this is the best person to talk about this.” I mean, I happen to think the voices we got were really amazing, but again, this was a speed production.
We talked with Saheem and people at The Public about themes of the play, came up with a big list of people to talk to, to contextualize the play, and just started. Also learning the play and learning where would be the breaks. Where would we come out? You know, what do we need to explain? But this was literally—I mean, what do we need to explain was we were figuring out the week before.
BOGAEV: Did you have any model though, in your head, for how those contextual conversations would go? My producer, Richard, said that you are thinking of those old guys on the Muppets.
BOTEIN: I mean, yes. I guess in my head, there was like Alastair Cook from Masterpiece Theatre, and then there was, sure, the Muppets guys. Saheem, what are their names?
BOGAEV: Statler and Waldorf.
BOTEIN: Statler and Waldorf.
BOTEIN: Oh, Saheem, who were the two… ? I mean, we talked about lots of different ride-along characters. And I think—Saheem, correct me if I’m wrong—I would say the ride-along, I don’t know if it was a point of disagreement, but it was a point of, “Don’t touch the play,” was a feeling I think that The Public felt. “Don’t touch the play within the play.”
[CLIP from The Public and WNYC’s collaboration, Richard II. Introduction by Vinson Cunningham. Lupita Nyong’o is the narrator and André Holland is King Richard.]
VINSON CUNNINGHAM: Now before we move on, a recap on our story so far.
NARRATOR: Last night on Richard II.
You, cousin Bolingbroke, on pain of life.
Till twice five summers.
ALI: When we started this, it was only COVID, right? It was isolation, and we knew that we were all have to be in our disparate spaces and how were we going to make a Shakespeare play in that context. And then there was the George Floyd murder, which then became a whole different context that imbued the process and imbued the narrative that we wanted to tell.
So how were we going to surround and embed these conversations about isolation and about racial equality as part of the handholding and how would they go back and forth? What would the sense of narration for the play be, as opposed to the host kind of introducing each of the episodes? And so that was such a beautiful evolving moving target, that at different points, just different aspects of it became clear to us as we worked. So we didn’t go in being like, “This is exactly how it’s going to be.” It just revealed itself as we worked on it.
BOGAEV: And that’s a really tall order. And one thing I loved about how you solved the contextual part of it for radio, is that you set it up in a really intimate way. You have these two guides: Ayanna Thompson, Jim Shapiro. The Shakespeare scholar also shows up. And they’re, like, characters in the story because we learn a little bit about them as people and what their first Shakespeare experiences were, and that kind of thing. We get to know them a little bit.
[CLIP from The Public and WNYC’s collaboration, Richard II. Ayanna Thompson is the speaker.]
AYANNA THOMPSON: I grew up pretty working class and did not go to a lot of theatre, but my mother was a weird Shakespeare fan.
BOGAEV: Tell us about that, Emily. Your concept for that.
BOTEIN: I mean, Richard II was a really ambitious first Shakespeare in the Park for us to do. I am so happy to be talking with Saheem. We made it through, but it was a really crazy first production. There are so many characters. You know, we started out thinking we were going to talk to so many more experts about Shakespeare and about Richard II. Then, just the more we kept going, I was like, “Oh my god, you guys. This is so hard. People understand radio. Radio is such a—audio is such an emotional medium. We can’t keep throwing another person at these people.”
So my feeling was like, we’re creating another little play and we need to establish these people. I don’t care if you remember Ayanna Thompson’s name. I mean, you should, because she’s brilliant. But to me, the way you remember her is that she was the woman who worked as a trader. So it’s like I wanted to include little snippets of people, because I think our brain holds onto the stories about people.
[CLIP from The Public and WNYC’s collaboration, Richard II. Vinson Cunningham and Ayanna Thompson are the speakers.]
CUNNINGHAM: When do your love of engagement with the theatre begin?
THOMPSON: I was 13 at the time, and I had zero interest. Zero. I thought that this was the least cool thing you could do. But, we saw a production of Romeo and Juliet that was all in leather costumes. And it was so sexy and so today and so right on, that my first live Shakespeare experience made it feel like it was about my life. I think that’s something that kind of stuff with me.
BOTEIN: The narrative stories will help us keep those people close to us as listeners, and will help us be able to take in more information from them. So to me, it was essential that those people become characters so that they weren’t just spewing information at a listener who’s already like, “Whoa. I’m going to try to understand Shakespeare.” Because obviously, there’s lots of people who love this, but we really need to cater to the people who are like, “I’m at sea. Help me be less so.”
BOGAEV: So Saheem, you mentioned George Floyd’s murder happened almost right before your initial rehearsal started. So what were actors talking about in that, when they first got together, and how did they first get together? Was it already socially-distanced, your rehearsal process?
ALI: Yeah, so our entire process was on Zoom, and the murder happened the week prior to first rehearsal. I very personally just had a real kind of existential crisis about like, “What am I doing? And should we be doing Shakespeare? Should we be doing something that this dead, old, white guy wrote hundreds of years ago? Why are we even doing this?” And so I went in my own tailspin, and I reached out to couple of the actors just to check in with them.
What I found was that the actors actually themselves were really looking forward to this process; were really looking forward to artistry and community that we were going to create. And so in that first rehearsal, I gathered with the actors and we just talked. We talked about the moment that we were in. I knew that that was going to embed itself into the final product because it was going to be in our process.
What I didn’t know setting out was how. And then I think just because we were doing this on the radio—because we were going to be in this format—we could actually engage with the voices of these humans in a way that was complementary to the play.
[CLIP from The Public and WNYC’s collaboration, Richard II. John Douglas Thompson is the speaker.]
JOHN DOUGLAS THOMPSON: The rhythms of the language, the stories, the characters, really reminded me of my own upbringing, particularly emotionally.
ALI: The play could stand there on its own two feet and in a way that we couldn’t do in theater. In a way that we never could have done at the Delacorte. Have these actors actually speak about their experience.
[CLIP from The Public and WNYC’s collaboration, Richard II. André Holland and Vinson Cunningham are the speakers.]
ANDRÉ HOLLAND: You know, when I think about Black people in the South, we, kind of, naturally speak in this iambic pentameter kind of way at times.
CUNNINGHAM: That’s André Holland again.
HOLLAND: Like when I speak to my pops, for example. I call down, “How you doing, man? How’s your day going?” He might say, “I can’t kill nothing, and look like won’t nothing die.”
ALI: What gets revealed is that artists of color in this country have a very particular relationship with Shakespeare, and just bringing themselves and their identity, and not getting to play certain parts. I very much always center people of color in the stories that I tell. And so, the deliberate casting of this production, it happened like last year. At the end of 2019, we started talking about André Holland as Richard II. So what I really loved about this medium was just being able to incorporate these voices and these experiences as artists making this play.
And then Emily’s team. Emily and Matt Collette were just so expert at being able to craft their voices with the voices of the experts, with Ayanna Thompson and Jim Shapiro, and make it about this moment. Have a resonance that was so present-moment, that was so, like, of now, in a way that, again, even if we had been doing this play in a moment of racial unrest in this country, we never would have been able to have that dialogue.
BOGAEV: Can you give us some examples of ways then, that this process that you’re talking about and working people’s experience of this moment in time right now, figured into your directing and your choices or their acting choices? I mean, did it change how you conceived of Bolingbroke or Richard, for example? Those are two huge questions in this play.
ALI: Yeah. It did not change of how I conceived of them, because the story that I wanted to tell had already been imbued in the casting choices. I knew that the person playing Richard II was going to be a Black man, and so that informed my decision to cast a Black woman in the role of Bolingbroke, because that’s the person that I wanted to see take power from a Black king. But I think that Miriam Hyman then being able to speak about the significance of that choice in a really deliberate way just informed then the experience of the radio play in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise.
[CLIP from The Public and WNYC’s collaboration, Richard II. Vinson Cunningham and Miriam Hyman are the speakers. Miriam Hyman is Bolingbroke.]
VINSON CUNNINGHAM: Did playing Bolingbroke and being a woman change the way that you then thought about this person?
MIRIAM HYMAN: No, because Black women are the most disrespected individuals in the country. So if anything, it just made me feel even more disrespected, even more stripped away from—I want to say—my birthright, you know? Which is free inheritance. To be free, to be able to explore and expand to my heart’s desire.
Bushy and Green, I will not vex your souls,
Since presently your souls must part your bodies,
With too much urging your pernicious lives,
For ‘twere no charity; yet your pernicious lives,
From off my hands, here in the view of men
I will unfold some causes of your deaths.
BOGAEV: So Emily, at what point did you realize, “Wait a second.” You said at first you wanted all these experts and all these voices and it got too much. How did you make choices about how to structure the context for each of these nights of radio?
BOTEIN: It was, in part, a conversation with people at The Public about the themes of the play. It was, in part, an ongoing conversation about what did the listener need to know? Like what themes did they want to know? Were we talking about, you know, history, or were we talking about power? What were going to be the central themes? And again, it was just this idea that instead of multiple voices, we should nestle in with a few. I think early on, the conversations between the cast members were so profound, that Matt and I were just like… And we really want to include cast members.
[CLIP from The Public and WNYC’s collaboration, Richard II. André Holland is the speaker.]
ANDRÉ HOLLAND: One day I was home from school and in the art section of the Birmingham news—the cover of the arts page—there are a photograph of a Black man with long dreads holding a skull, Yorick’s skull. It said underneath it, “Adrian Lester starring in Hamlet at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.” I think prior to that, I had never imagined that a Black person could play the title role in a play like that.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and you knit them together really well. I’m thinking at the very end of the production, you have André Holland talking about really personal stories of his experience with Shakespeare.
ANDRÉ HOLLAND: My mother and father put a little money together and rented me a car. And it was closing the following day, so I left that next morning, drove to Chicago. Sat in line in the theatre, waiting for a cancellation, got the last ticket. And Adrian Lester came out and started the, “To be or not to be,” speech, and I sat there and wept like a baby because it just… it really moved me, man. I think it was a real turning point.
VINSON CUNNINGHAM: Wow.
ANDRÉ HOLLAND: Yeah, so, to answer your question; yes, it’s been a long process of me coming to believe that, like, I could have ownership over any of the parts of Shakespeare in the same way that other people have.
ALI: Having experienced Andre play this part and immediately after, the play does this really beautiful thing where you get to know Richard, and his humanity really gets revealed as the play progresses. So for the radio production to then reveal André Holland’s humanity and reveal his struggle and just his profound sensitivity, that was so brilliant. And you know, kudos to Emily and Matt and the folks at WNYC, because they scripted the journey of those conversations in a way that I thought was just so smart and so brilliant.
ANDRÉ HOLLAND: It’s incredible, man. I think, in all of the… for me it’s Shakespeare at his best. Those speeches that he gives Richard to say are profoundly beautiful. So that was my first contact with the play.
BOGAEV: But the logistics are just wild. I mean, I think you had actors in 26 different locations? First off, Emily, was that the idea from the start? That you do this remotely?
BOTEIN: Yes. I mean, I think there was some thought that, “Oh, can we please just open up the studios.” And, for me, when we were starting, New York numbers were not good. But to me, the idea of trying to do a socially-distant recording in a studio, I don’t think that makes people feel safe. Some people would love it, but you know, if there was one person who wasn’t feeling safe, that wouldn’t be a good thing. It’s like eating mushrooms—eating the mushrooms that you gather, I mean.
So yes, we always knew that it was going to be remote. I think in my head, to be totally honest, I thought, “Oh, well, just people will record themselves on their iPhones.” But then we were working with our sound designer, Isaac Jones. He was appalled by that idea. Even, I think, The Public was like, “No, no, no, no, no. We want a good recording.” So we ended up kitting people out. My colleague, Matt, and other colleagues drove and mailed. We had kits in Australia. We had kits in Pennsylvania. We had kits in Los Angeles. Kits all over the place. It was like a huge mega tape synch. It was like a 26 person tape synch.
BOGAEV: It’s like a Cecil B. DeMille tape synch.
BOTEIN: So it was both very simple and totally insane.
BOGAEV: On a kit, of course, is everything you need to record. A microphone, and the cords, and the adapters, and the tape recorder.
BOTEIN: Estelle Parsons was recording off her lake house where she grew up in New Hampshire. I mean, it was just crazy where everyone was.
BOGAEV: So Saheem, how was it for this Zoom process? And how was it for your actors? Now I was thinking as I was listening, you know, I’ve done voiceover. I mean, voiceover actors do this all the time. They work in separate studios, or they record their lines without other actors in the room. And actors do it when they do that looping process later; where you just read lines to edit into the movie. But it’s not for everybody, so you’re missing a lot, obviously. You’re missing almost everything when you’re not working with an actor on the stage and with an audience in front of you. So, what were the challenges?
ALI: The challenge was that majority of the actors hadn’t had more of a film or a TV experience to know how to deal with acting in that particular capacity. So not only is it that, but also even when you do those projects, you’re not creating in the same way. You’re always creating the thing in an organic person-to-person way. The biggest challenge was how to approximate a person-to-person interaction that is crucial to creating a dramatic experience that then gets translated into a different form.
I would say that for the earlier part of the process, we pretty much were able to stay to how we do it traditionally. Traditionally, you have table work where you’re sitting around a table and you’re talking about the play, and you’re reading through scenes, and you’re having conversation.
Then when it came down to how they were going to interact with each other and create an emotional blueprint for themselves, you know, they have to interact with the other actors. So at that point, I let them keep their cameras on to be able to see each other. I would just turn my screen off and listen, because I’m just listening for a way where all the information I have to get from what they’re saying, whereas I didn’t want them worrying about that. I didn’t want them listening for the other person’s opinion or expression. I want them to be able to see it, whereas that information wasn’t useful for me.
Then even with the recording sessions, the challenge there was, I guess, traditionally if we were in a studio, I would be hearing what exactly the actors are doing; what is being captured. And in our process, because I was listening to the Zoom computer audio, myself and the engineer didn’t get to actually hear what was truly being captured. We had to wait until after the fact. After they had uploaded their files and someone had assembled them to be like, “Oh, okay. It actually sounds good.” So there was even a delay in being able to actually experience what the actors were doing, which we had to adjust to.
BOGAEV: And I could have sworn I heard a rainstorm at one point in the play near the end, maybe? That I hadn’t expected.
[CLIP from The Public and WNYC’s collaboration, Richard II. Lupita Nyong’o is the narrator.]
NARRATOR: There’s no sign of him. His troops are uneasy.
ALI: Ah. There was a thunderstorm during one of the scenes that we were recording. It was with the Welsh captain in Salisbury, and it just became part of the recording. We kept trying to ignore it, and then all of a sudden, it was like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if this scene were actually in a rainstorm?” So that real-world condition actually became part of the design.
[Clip continues. Reza Salazar is the Welsh Captain.]
These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.
Farewell. Our countrymen are gone and fled,
As well assured Richard their king is dead.
BOGAEV: I wonder what’s changed for you after doing this? Saheem, do you think having given so much context to this radio production, that maybe you do it for a production in the theater?
ALI: I think that the way the live theater works, you are taken to a world and the world is so many things. The world is how you walk into the theater. The world is, do you get a program? The world is the seat that you’re in. What the walls look like. What the smells are. Then when the actors come out, you’re seeing who they are and what they’re wearing, and then how they sound. There’s so many different aspects to the experience that you are taking in, and it’s so sensory. You use all your five senses.
That, to me, was a big shift because I don’t get that here. I don’t get to sit in a space with my audience. You know, people could be cooking dinner, or in their car, or jogging, or sitting and listening. There’s so many different ways of experiencing a radio play, that as a director, I don’t have control over. I think that this allows us to contextualize a play in a way that we wouldn’t be able to do in a theater.
I wouldn’t want the actors coming out and talking to me before a play, and then seeing the play, and then talking to me after. There’s something about sitting in a theater. I want the play to talk to me. I don’t need the actors to talk to me. So I think that this just becomes a different way of expressing Shakespeare that doesn’t have to follow through to the theater, but can be like a different way of interacting with the makers of the thing.
BOGAEV: Huh, that’s interesting. Emily, were there implications for you at WNYC after this production that you’d like to do more radio plays? Or are there plans to do more Shakespeare in the Park?
BOTEIN: I mean, you know, we don’t have plans, but it was a really amazing, fun, hard, totally inspiring collaboration. So I think we certainly hope there will be more.
BOGAEV: And you’ll have more than 12 weeks to do it.
BOTEIN: Yeah, we were operating under a crazy time schedule. You know, maybe that was one of the reasons. Everyone just was like, “We gotta make it work. We gotta make it work.” It was also just very inspiring to make something during this time. I think that was really important for everyone. To be making something as a collective felt really good and moving under such sort of challenging times.
BOGAEV: And it felt that way to listen to it, as well. Thank you so much for doing it.
BOTEIN: Well, it was a real pleasure to work with the actors and Saheem and The Public. It was a real pleasure.
BOGAEV: And you too, Saheem. And thank you for coming on the podcast.
BOTEIN: You’re welcome. It was our pleasure.
ALI: Yeah, thanks for having us.
WITMORE: Saheem Ali has directed nearly 25 plays, mostly in New York, over the past 10 years. He has his fingers crossed for two productions—in New York and in Berkeley—in 2021.
Emily Botein is Vice President for On-Demand Content at WNYC public radio in New York, where she oversees national programs including “Death, Sex & Money.”
She and Saheem, along with Co-Executive-Producer Matt Collette and Technical Producer and Sound Designer Isaac Jones, collaborated on the radio station’s production of Richard II with The Public Theater. The program is now available as a podcast in four installments. You can hear it at wnyc.org or wherever you get your podcasts from. Saheem and Emily were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast “Weeping Made You Break the Story Off” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
As always, I’d like to ask: Please rate and review Shakespeare Unlimited in the Apple Podcasts app. That’s the best way to let people know what we’re doing here.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.