Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 210
Robert O’Hara joins us to talk about directing last year’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, starring Danai Gurira of Black Panther. He tells us about gathering a diverse cast of actors with disabilities, wanting to “trigger” his audiences, and what it’s like to get a call about directing Shakespeare in the Park (spoiler: it’s a whirlwind). Robert O’Hara is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
A film of Richard III premiered on PBS’s Great Performances on Friday, May 19, and is streaming now on the PBS App and at pbs.org/gperf.
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Robert O’Hara is a two-time Obie Award and two-time NAACP Award Winner whose work has been seen around the country. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his direction of Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play.
From our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published May 23, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from CDM Studios in New York and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
Read and explore Shakespeare’s Richard III with The Folger Shakespeare
Richard III and Disability
What did Richard III and his disability represent to Shakespeare’s original audiences? How has this Shakespeare villain shaped the field of early modern disability studies today? Katherine Schaap Williams explores in an excerpt from book, Unfixable Forms: Disability, Performance, and the Early Modern English Theater.
MICHAEL WITMORE: In a juicy production of Richard III now playing on PBS’s Great Performances, Shakespeare’s “bunch-backed toad” hides all of his deformities on the inside.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.
In the summer of 2022, The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park in New York mounted a production of Richard III directed by Robert O’Hara. Even before it opened, the show sparked conversations based on its casting. The actor Danai Gurira, known for her roles in the Black Panther films and The Walking Dead, played the title role.
[CLIP from The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara. Danai Gurira is Richard III.]
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York,
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruisèd arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbèd steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
WITMORE: Gurira played Richard III without a limp or other visible disability. At the same time, the cast included many differently abled actors playing opposite Gurira. Many critics interpreted O’Hara’s casting as a clever commentary on disability, race, and gender.
The other actors you’ll hear in clips from the production are: Sharon Washington as Queen Margaret, Ariel Shafir as Lord Hastings, and Heather Alicia Simms as Queen Elizabeth.
If you missed Richard III’s run in Central Park, you’re in luck. A recorded version of the production is now available as part of Great Performances’ 50th season, streaming on PBS.org and the PBS app.
Here’s Robert O’Hara, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: I want to start with a quote from you, and it is, “Part of my job as a director is to trigger you. We’re so afraid of this word right now, but my job is to make something that causes you to feel. Because this production is free. Because anybody throwing a frisbee can walk in. Our Richard III is meant to make you uncomfortable.”
There’s so much in that. I’d love it if you could elaborate on it because it speaks to both this hyperlocal context as a play in Shakespeare in the Park, as well as the global issue of what the purpose of all theater is.
ROBERT O’HARA: Hmm. Well, you know, Richard III is a murderer and he’s a killer. He is charismatic and he indicts you as the audience because he gets you to watch him and tells you what he’s going to do, and we sit there and watch.
My job is to really make you go on a rollercoaster ride, or some sort of ride. Otherwise, you can just read the play, you know? If I don’t embed moments where you feel like, “Oh, I want to scream out,” or I want, “I don’t like this moment,” or, “I hate that person right now,” or, “I want to protect that person,” or, “I want to cry”—I mean, those are all triggers. Those are all things that people put in to make you feel something as you go on this journey. So I think that’s what the triggering, is for a director, is how—“What is the journey I want to take you on? And how can I get you through that journey.”
I always think, “You know what? I would just like to make myself a trigger.” So, make my name, Robert O’Hara, should be the trigger. And I think whenever you’re seeing my name, you should feel, like, “Oh, I’m going to be triggered.”
And so that to me clears it all up. It’s like, “Oh.” If you see my name on anything, it means that I’m here to trigger you. As opposed to, “Let’s tell you all the things that are going to happen in this story.” You know, “There’s going to be a gunshot, there’s going to be smoke, there’s going to be language.”
I’m like, “Why are you telling me everything in this story before I walk in?” So I think, just expect it from me.
BOGAEV: I know there’s not one thing, obviously, you want people to feel. But I still came away from that quote wanting to ask you, what do you want people to feel with this Richard?
O’HARA: I think I want people to feel, as I said before, an indictment. That, “Wow, I sat here and I thought he was kind of funny. And I kind of waited for him to kill the kids.” You know?
What does that mean about how we watch villains? Because sometimes it’s more fun to watch villains than it is to watch heroes. I want them to feel their complicity.
BOGAEV: Complicity. And he’s so seductive, that is something that you can lose track of—you’re right—as you’re watching.
O’HARA: I mean, can we follow people who do things that we are too afraid to do? I mean, Richard says, “Look, I’m going to do all this stuff in front of you. I’ve already done all this other stuff. Here it is.” And then it happens.
[CLIP from The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara. Danai Gurira is Richard III.]
Since I cannot prove a lover
I am determined to prove a villain.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Georgie and the king
In deadly hate, the one against the other;
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Georgie closely be mewed up
By a prophecy which says, “G”
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
O’HARA: But what does it cost him, also, is a big part of my exploration to Richard III. Because you normally just see killers just go about killing people. Especially in Shakespeare, you see people doing bad things and then getting up and making a monologue or a speech about it and there’s—doesn’t cost them anything.
I thought, well, what does it cost someone to tell a group of people, “I’m going to do these bad things,” and then to do it? What do you have to give up of your humanity to do that?
I don’t normally see that in Shakespeare. I usually see someone who’s, you know, pretty much okay at the end, if they’re not dead already. But it does not cost them as they’re doing it. I wanted to investigate that.
BOGAEV: Can we go back to the very beginning? How do you begin with Richard for Shakespeare in the Park? Do you reread the play? Do you watch adaptations? Do you do historical research? What?
O’HARA: Well, you know, first, the way that Shakespeare in the Park works is that you get the call. I think the call came in around, I don’t know, October, maybe. The call doesn’t say, “I want you to direct Richard.” The call says, “I want you to… would you be interested in directing something in the park?”
I think that every director—and actor, really, and designer—I mean, you know, who lives or works around Shakespeare, dreams of being asked to do something on that big of a scale.
BOGAEV: Did you freak?
O’HARA: No, I didn’t freak out because I had already worked in the park, but as an assistant to the directors, and I had also done bigger projects.
But it was just that I knew that the time commitment is not a year later, it’s five or six months later. You have to have all this stuff together. So, I always feel like, I got the call and the next day they were like, “Okay, so what’s the costume and what’s the set and where’s the actors and how long is it going to take you?”
I really felt like… I keep telling people it was like guiding a cruise ship in a lake. Because it’s such a machine, they know what they’re doing and people have done it this way forever. And yet, I’ve never been asked to do Shakespeare on that level. And so my needs as a director were going to be different than, you know, what you’ve been doing for 50, 60 years.
You have to decide on the play. And you have to decide, of course, on who you want to be the face of the play. The easy part for me was who I wanted to be the face of any Shakespeare play that I was going to do. I had always wanted to work with Danai Gurira again, because I had worked with her earlier in her career. I had always wanted to work with her on Shakespeare.
So, finding something that I thought that she would be excited and I would be excited to work on, and I came down to Richard III. Luckily it hadn’t been done in a while. We approached her and she was like, I think, surprised in a good way. And we had some conversations.
And then, once she committed to that, then I think I started, in depth, to sort of do my research and to do the readings of the different versions of it. Watch different productions of it. I think that is just to, sort of like, fill yourself up with as much Richard III as possible before you, sort of, dive in.
BOGAEV: There is this ongoing conversation about whether Richard historically was as evil as the play makes him out to be, or if he was another victim of Tudor propaganda which Shakespeare was parroting. Was that something that leapt out at you? Was that something that entered into your thinking during the research?
O’HARA: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I certainly sided on it being propaganda. Only because I’m just, like, “Why are all these people letting this person do this?” You know, “Why are we sitting around and letting him do this?” And then, the only people who sort of like, you know, stand up to him are the women.
[CLIP from The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara. Sharon Washington is Queen Margaret and Danai Gurira is Richard III.]
Stay dog, for thou shall hear me
If heaven have any grievous plague in store
Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,
O, let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,
And then hurl down their indignation
On thee, the troubler of the poor world’s peace.
The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul.
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be that some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hail of ugly devils.
Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,
Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell,
Thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb,
Thou loathed issue of thy father’s loins,
Thou rag of honor, thou detested—
RICHARD III: Margaret.
QUEEN MARGARET: Richard!
RICHARD III: Ha?
QUEEN MARGARET: I call thee not.
I cry thee mercy then, for I had thought
Thou’d call me all these bitter names.
O’HARA: I mean, the women call him out to his face. Of course, they have no power.
BOGAEV: Over and over again,
O’HARA: Yes. Over and over. And they have no power. And the men are just like, “Oh, yeah,” genuflecting and letting him get by doing just these horrible things.
Of course, we recently had a president where a bunch of men let this man do whatever he wanted to do. So, that sort of, you know, resonated with me; how we will sit back and let evil happen. And we sort of played with that also.
Richard really is doing no different than other people. I mean, the English monarchy is littered with people killing their brother and bloodying their way up to a throne.
I saw the… watched a movie, the Olivier version, and I couldn’t tell the difference between Anne, Elizabeth, Margaret. It was always some woman coming in and saying how horrible they’ve been treated.
BOGAEV: Right, and complaining.
O’HARA: Yeah, and, you know, wringing their arms. I’m like, I really want to differentiate.
Also, whenever you do Shakespeare, especially in the park, you have to cut it. People are not going to sit for five and a half hours, so we had to cut it. I really cut a lot, because Richard, I think, is the second or the third longest play that Shakespeare has written. I cut it down and really wanted to highlight and demanded that we keep as much of the women as possible.
BOGAEV: Yeah, because they’re often cut a lot in other productions. Here they’re very distinct. Each one has a very distinct take.
O’HARA: There’s a lot of stuff that we sort of shaped it so that I could, sort of, highlight not only that Richard was being played by a woman, but also that the women in the play are the only people who stand up.
What did their agency—even though he’s killed everyone they knew and everyone they loved, you know… But there’s something—this goes back to what it costs Richard—there’s something for someone to stand up in your face and tell you exactly what they think of you, and you have to carry that.
You don’t usually see Richard III having to carry it, because what you normally see is Richard III just looking for power and the women are just nuisance. And they’re playing the women part because, of course, women are emotional and they cry and, “They’re upset that I did something bad.” But here, there’s a strength to them, I think, and an ownership, which was very exciting for us to explore.
[CLIP from The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara. Sharon Washington is Queen Margaret and Heather Alicia Simms is Queen Elizabeth.]
From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hell hound that doth hunt us all to death.
O, thou didst prophesy the time would come
That I should wish for thee to help me curse
That bottled spider, that foul bunch-backed toad.
BOGAEV: You give a few nods, of course, to current events and specifically to Trump. There’s a moment where Danai holds up a Bible, very reminiscent of that moment. So, well, did you get any comments or any pushback from any quarter about making Richard Trumpy?
O’HARA: The interesting thing is that as a director, you’re thinking about so many different things. When you come to watching it, everyone wants to say, “Well, you put this in.” But in fact, Danai held the book up, and Danai decided that she was going to do it that way, and I was like, “Oh, okay, well, that’s interesting.” But, of course it’s attached to, “I made her into a Trump clone.”
BOGAEV: It all comes back to you.
O’HARA: Exactly. I get the applause, and I get, you know, the death threats as well.
I’m not creating the production. If I’m creating the production, I would just have puppet strings and tell you to, “Go over here, stand there and do that.” And I’m not interested in directing that way.
I get very interesting, exciting people in the room and let them do the work.
BOGAEV: So Danai came up with so much, and she’s a playwright herself, so I imagine she was very instrumental in this. But how much of a production like this does develop in the rehearsal room, you know? Or even before you get to rehearsal? What ideas came from your collaboration with your lighting and your set and your costume designers that you had to have the next day, after you got the gig?
O’HARA: Yeah, exactly. You know, that’s what’s so exciting to me is seeing what other people bring to it.
So, the set designer, we talked about that the crown sort of passes, I think, like, two or three times in this. Because of course, you have the first king and then he dies. And then, of course, his son is about to be crowned, and then Richard is crowned, and then at the end, another king is crowned.
BOGAEV: It’s rotating crowns. Musical chairs.
O’HARA: I mean, so we’re like, “There should be something dangerous about the set.” She came up with these, sort of, Tudor arches, which have that sort of edge at the top of it. And then rotating. I thought, “Oh, that’s really, really, really beautiful.”
BOGAEV: And the arches light up. I have to say, I read a criticism and—many of them didn’t like the set. I thought it was fantastic. You always see the rotating crowns. That always gives you that feeling of, “Oh, who’s going to get it next? Who’s it going to hit next?”
O’HARA: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
BOGAEV: Also, it always looks architectural, so you’re always situated within a castle.
O’HARA: And that’s a part of the scheme, right? You want the audience to feel like, “Oh, that’s pretty, that’s kind of sinister, but that’s good to look at.”
But I think that in terms of the criticism, that’s what’s so fascinating to me. Everyone has this sort of ownership of Shakespeare, and they want their Shakespeare the way they want their Shakespeare.
Yet this is like, free, Shakespeare. You pay nothing to come into this. Yet there’s this sort of, really, ownership of how the way it should go. Down to, like, “Oh, I don’t like the moving crowns or the moving arches,” you know?
At that point, you can’t direct and also be careful. I mean, it’s a classic, right? I always say that classic plays are used to being stretched. Someone will come along and do the exact version that you want in about five minutes. There’s going to be another Richard III in about five minutes. Someone’s going to come and do exactly the way you want.
So, this, sort of like, hot under the collar about, “Why this….” It’s always funny to me when there’s like 900 other Richards behind us and in front of us, coming along.
BOGAEV: Okay, let’s talk about Danai. And your humor: I have to say, this is one of the funniest Richards I’ve seen. Many of them are. I mean, there’s a lot of humor. You play it up. But Danai, she is very charismatic. She’s not exactly sly. Which is what a lot of us are probably used to with Richard, all of the asides.
O’HARA: Mm hmm.
BOGAEV: The breaking of the fourth wall, this kind of quiet slyness.
She just not… she brings a lot of charisma and energy to this Richard. And she’s not a hunchback or in any way, traditionally physically disabled. Was that your idea or Danai’s idea or both of you from the beginning? Tell us about that choice.
O’HARA: Well, you know, I think that part of this was that Richard was the villain that everyone wanted to make him out to be. So they saw different things in Richard that simply were not there. As I said, Richard is just in the line of a bunch of other people who’ve done horrible things to get power.
In terms of the sort of traditional hunchback, or what have you, or disability of Richard, to me, I wanted to surround Richard with as many different body types: disabled actors, abled actors, hearing actors, non-hearing actors as possible, so that the world itself had a diversity to it.
Because usually it’s like, “Oh, let’s watch all these people sort of say these horrible things for three hours against someone who has a clear disability.” If we’re playing the disability. “Let’s use that as an excuse to make him really evil.”
I wanted Richard’s—in terms of what his disability would be, or what they see in him, is that I’ve put a Black woman in front of you. The world has told Black women that they’re less than, and that they don’t have the same agency as everyone, and that there’s mistakes being made because of their gender and because of their skin color.
We really played up the fact that she was different than her brothers, and that she also internalized that. I love the line when—paraphrasing—when Richard says, “If I can’t prove the lover, I’ll prove a villain.”
You know, if you don’t want—if you don’t look at me and see that I have love in me, then I’ll just do what you actually see in me. It’s the wonderful moment when Richard says that. “Look at my arm, it’s withered.” And his arm is not withered. And yet everyone is like, “Oh, yeah, sure. Yeah.”
[CLIP from The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara. Danai Gurira is Richard III and Ariel Shafir is Lord Hastings.]
Then be your eyes the witness of their evil.
Look how I am bewitched! Behold mine arm
Like a blasted sapling withered up;
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,
That by her witchcraft thus have marked me.
LORD HASTINGS: If she have done this deed, my noble lord—
Talks thou to me of “ifs”? Thou art a traitor.—
Off with his head. Now by St. Paul I swear
I will not dine until I see the same—
O’HARA: It’s the same thing of like, you know, Trump going, “I had the most people at the inauguration.” And we’re going, “No, you didn’t.” And then people get out and go, “Look, he had the most people at the inauguration.”
I want to allow the audience to decide, why is it that people think of Richard as this villain? I mean, they say horrible things to Richard. I mean, particularly the women say horrible things, “dog,” “witch.” You know, all these sort of things that they say to him.
I think that whenever we are calling people out on things, that we’re afraid of them in ourselves. They know that they’re in a brutal world. They know that these people who Richard has killed and that has died before the play began have done brutal things to other people.
And yet, it’s because Richard stands up and says, “I’m going to do this in front of you,” that they sort of like, “Oh, that’s worse than what the other people do, Richard. I can see it in you because I don’t trust you because the way you look, so I know you’re doing bad things.”
We talked about, was she playing Richard as a woman or playing Richard as a man? I think that one of the things that was exciting to us is to invest in the entitlement and the supremacy that patriarchy allows men to have, right?
So, [for] her to change Richard into a woman would lessen that investment for her as an actress, right? I think she wanted to step into what it felt like to be in a room full of men and play a man, you know? That was exciting to her in the way she walked, in the way she interacted with them, and playing on the stereotypes of what we normally see in a Shakespeare hero or villain.
BOGAEV: That was really interesting because she… it’s not as if she’s swaggers or anything. She really embodies power and she has owned her evil or her self-hatred, in a way. Which Richard is all about. Richard, as you said, has internalized hatred of the world.
BOGAEV: I wanted to say when you’re talking, I thought it was so strange in the New York Times review, under the headline in the subhead, they wrote that, “Richard is a play about disability.”
And I just, I mean, I have never thought of it anywhere near as baldly as… I mean, that’s just kind of… what? Especially given how much Shakespeare explores seeming and being in the context of the Tudor ideas around evil always showing itself on the surface.
And it’s not. It’s about internalizing self-hatred. I mean, it’s the… yeah, the disability is just the prop, really.
O’HARA: Disability can be various things in the world. You know, Anne—Lady Anne is in a wheelchair in my production. It was exciting just to see how you’re going to—and she says horrific things to Richard. It was just exciting to see how you—the changing that lends to having this woman who can get around faster than Richard because she’s on wheels.
But also the change in, how do you convince Anne to stay in the narrative when she’s completely and totally against this man? And it’s two women playing it.
BOGAEV: You also use Anne’s wheelchair—the actress, Ali Stroker, who plays Lady Anne, she zooms around—you use it for laughs.
O’HARA: I think of it as ability-conscious, because she knows she’s in a wheelchair. And one thing the actress said to me is like, “You know, I hate it when people try and help me across the street.” She’s like, “I can get across the street faster than you can get across the street.”
There’s the one moment where, like, Richard has to run after her and hold her in place, you know? There’s another moment where she’s threatening to, sort of, run over Richard.
I think that it’s actually being conscious of the people and the body that’s on the stage and not ignoring it and not being blind to it.
You know, there’s the moment where we have a Deaf actress who was playing Richard’s mother. When we got to understand, and I said one day, I’m like, “You know what? This is Richard’s first language. Richard was taught by his deaf mother how to speak, how to sign.”
And his mother was there for him, and she taught him this, right?
BOGAEV: Is that why you sometimes don’t have someone voice his mother’s signing.
O’HARA: Exactly, Richard and his mother wouldn’t need it. And so it’s very particular and very specific moments.
We had a director of American Sign Language on, because we had to have another language created, because this is poetry. There’s some words that are not normalized in sign language, so you also have to make up a whole other interpretation of it. So that was very exciting.
When we got there, we’re like, what connects them on a deeper level is the difference. That we’re not saying that his Deaf mother sort of fits into the world in the way that we’re going to ignore that she’s Deaf. But we’re going to go, “No, she has something that connects her to Richard.”
When Richard is being told that he’s this and he’s that and he’s different, that his mother is also different and they share something. But his mother also is at a place that she cannot take him anymore, that he’s overstepped everything. When she says, “I will never speak to you again,” it hits our production, and internally it hits the two actors in a different way.
BOGAEV: You’ve lost your mother language, as well as your mother.
O’HARA: Exactly. That to me was very tragic and beautiful. You know, quite frankly there was criticism about, “I don’t understand what they’re saying.” I’m like, “Well, maybe you’re not supposed to.” I’ve sat through Shakespeare where they’ve spoken every word clearly and I’ve had no clue what the hell they were saying.
BOGAEV: Okay, were you a theater kid? Is that how you came to Shakespeare?
O’HARA: You know, I was a theater kid, but I was always afraid of Shakespeare. And I think that, you know, we can’t underestimate that Shakespeare is not something that was given in the same way to people of color, or even to women, as it has been given to white, straight men. I mean, there’s a couple of plays, Othello, race is explored—
BOGAEV: The Shakespeare ghetto.
O’HARA: —Exactly. It’s just like, “why don’t you play the maid? Or why don’t you play, you know, the helper.” It wasn’t a space that it felt like we were centralized, and so I was always afraid. It was always this big bear of a thing. I was like, “I couldn’t possibly do Shakespeare.”
Then, when you read it and you go, “Oh, these are just people who are acting out their fears and their hopes and their jealousies.” If you can make Richard III into a man who’s watched all these people pass him up and he’s had to do these things to give other people power, and now is the time for him to have power. He’s in a civil war. Richard died in his thirties. His entire life has been a civil war. His entire life is watching brothers and brothers kill each other. So, if you make him human in a real experience, then I think you understand that there’s no difference between Shakespeare and other plays.
One of the great things that I experienced with Richard III, and people tell me over and over, is that, “It’s the first time I actually understood the play”: what they were saying, and the values of the play.
Part of that is me cutting away some of the fat of it. But also, part of it is just really deciding who, in human terms, this person was and what was important to this person.
You know, some of that came through and some of it doesn’t come through, but a lot of people did say to me, “I actually understood the play.” Whether they liked what they understood or not is another matter, but they understood it.
BOGAEV: You know, the sacred cow thing about Shakespeare, and especially in the business of theater, that is evolving. But how do you still experience it? What do you think needs to happen to get theater to a more evolved place so that all kinds of people are directing and acting in and participating in it?
O’HARA: I was just on a panel with Danai a few months ago, and a critic said, asked the question, “Well, you’ve cast a Black woman as Richard III, what do you think Shakespeare would think about it?” I was like, “I would hope that he would go, ‘Thank God. I’m tired of seeing that same old white man play this part for hundreds and hundreds of years.’”
BOGAEV: Probably thought, “Boy, it gets butts in seats. Great!”
O’HARA: Exactly. “Give me as many people as you—many different people as possible. I need some more money.”
I think that what has to happen is we have to let go of this sort of ownership of it, and that there’s a right way to do this. I mean, they had bear baiting when the man was doing this. You know what I mean? There were people drinking. There was all this stuff happening.
BOGAEV: Throwing food. It’s like watching a movie in Times Square.
O’HARA: Throwing food. It was modern costumes, they were not trying to convince you that they were in Illyria, you know?
Yet we sit back and we dim the lights, we sit comfy in our seats. And then we go, “Well, you know what? I just don’t believe I’m there. I don’t believe it’s true,” you know? And, “That’s not the way it should be done.”
We’ve put too much on it. I think we have to take all that stuff off of it. I got criticized by not having a disabled actor in Richard III and not anyone said I had more disabled actors on that stage in the history of Shakespeare in the Park. That we built accessibility for an actress in a wheelchair.
They had never had an actress in a—that needed to be in a wheelchair on that stage. And we had to build—It took hundreds of thousands of dollars to build this, to make it accessible. You know, underneath the stage you have to make things wider. You have to build ramps. You have to build accessible dressing rooms, accessible restrooms.
I demanded that this be an inclusive production. But everyone said, “Oh, but wait a second. She’s a Black woman and she’s not disabled.”
BOGAEV: You have done Richard and Macbeth. Tragedies. Any other Shakespeare in your future? I hope a comedy, maybe?
O’HARA: That’s so funny, because people think I’m sort of funny in a dark way. But I’m attracted to, sort of like, the tragedies.
I would love for someone to go, “We would love for you to direct Love’s Labor’s Lost,” or some sort of like, you know, comedy.
I mean, I’m sure I would find a pipe bomb in it. But yeah, I would love to do a comedy of Shakespeare. I just have not been drawn to it, and I’m not ever actually offered. This is only, I think, the third Shakespeare that I have ever been offered.
It also costs me something to live inside these spaces with these characters. I don’t just get up and go after seeing someone talk about killing kids. That costs me something too. So maybe I should go to another lighter play next for Shakespeare.
BOGAEV: Well, I hope you get something on your docket, and I hope you have more time to think about it. I just really enjoyed talking with you. I hope I get a chance to do it again.
O’HARA: Thank you. This was very fun.
WITMORE: That was Robert O’Hara, talking to Barbara Bogaev.
You can watch Great Performances: Richard III at PBS.org and on the PBS app.
This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from CDM Studios in New York and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
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Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.